There is a word in Greek (thaumazō) that Luke used to describe what happened when human beings witnessed the power and glory of God. It is alternatingly translated as “to wonder, to be astonished, to be amazed, to marvel, and to be surprised”. It is the response of the people of Bethlehem after hearing the shepherds declare the birth of the Savior and the disciples after Jesus calmed the wind and the waves. It is how multiple people reacted to the miraculous acts of the Lord and how Peter felt when he saw the empty tomb. Throughout the Gospels, men and women come face-to-face with the words and works of God and are amazed.
This experience of occasional astonishment is, in my opinion, a stark contrast to those who attend our twenty first century worship services. When was the last time you wondered at the meaning of the words found in the Scriptures or were surprised by the works of the Holy Spirit in our midst? When was the last time God broke through the mundane and you marveled at the world around you? In our day and age, our impressions of life on earth is more like that of the author of Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. Where has all the wonder gone?
I believe we get from life and from others what we expect from life and from others. Beyond “glass-half-full/glass-half-empty” biases, we see what we want to see. We are not surprised by God, either through His miraculous works or His marvelous words, because we do not think we will be. Babies are born and all but the immediate family shrugs. Healing comes to those who are sick and most of us yawn. Accidents are avoided by random delays and we are oblivious. Then we consider the biological functions necessary for sustaining life and the explosive power of the combustion engine, it is amazing that we “live and move and have our being”.
…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. Luke 2:18
In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this?” Luke 8:25b
…and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. Luke 24:12b
Last weekend, with its reminders of the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus, ought to pique our interest in the amazing. Easter is a lasting witness to the wonderful and marvelous works and words of God. It reminds us that while His claims may sound fantastic (i.e. based on fantasy), to our amazement they have all been proven true. This week, in communities of faith gathered in worship and in places of solitude intended for reflection, we allowed ourselves to be amazed, if only for a moment. I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to look for the surprising every Sunday morning, or every morning for that matter.
I pray that this week you hear something amazing, see something wonderful and sense something marvelous. Let me know when you do.
The other day I picked up our youngest son, Joshua, from a library program where he had been building robots with Legos®. It was amazing to see what could be built with things my son had at his disposal. From those four basic components (the EV3 computer, sensors, motors and Lego® pieces), he was able to build useful and powerful machines. Legos® have come a long way from when I was a kid: then, we could build a “blocky” plane or a car (which we could imagine to be the real things), but now you can design and control an actual moving vehicle.
Watching Joshua ‘play’ with these toys made me think about the church, the local representation of the kingdom of God. I always pictured, as all my kids and I played with the little plastic bricks, that this is what the Bible must have been referring to when Peter wrote that we, the saints, were being built into a temple. We may not all look the same (we come in different colors, lengths, widths and thicknesses), but we all can be useful in the construction plan of God. To steal a sentiment from The Lego Movie: in the hands of the Master Builder, we all can be special.
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4-5
Then, as Joshua was explaining these new components, I thought deeper about the matter. The computer unit provides the direction to the structure, much like the Word of God provides direction for the church. The sensors and motors translate that information from the computer into kinetic energy, just as the Holy Spirit translates the written Word into the Living Word as we gather as the church. And then, as one diverse but cohesive whole, the unit moves and accomplishes the purpose of the designer, whether we are talking of a Lego® robot or a local congregation. This is all in accordance with the designer’s plan.
Regarding this metaphor of the church being like a structure built with an interlocking brick system, it also reflects the truth that function is not defined by form. Anyone who has ever ventured into the Lego® Store knows that there are boxes of these bricks that that can make a “Super Soarer” for $9.99 and the US Capitol Building for $99.99. Does brick count make the project better? Not necessarily. Whether it is Legos® or churches, the size of the building is not as important as the enjoyment of the ‘build’. If you need a pencil holder, having a replica of the Millennium Falcon will not satisfy your need. And if your family’s experience with Legos® is anything like mine, all the set pieces get mixed together pretty quickly, and that is really when the fun and creativity starts.
I’m so glad I’m a part of the multi-colored structure that God is designing with our church. We may not be very big, but we are beautiful. We may not have a large brick count, but we are being used to bring our creator glory. And like Legos®, we (as a church) began as an idea in Scandinavia.
I did not go to church on Sunday. For those who know me, I am sure this comes as a bit of a shock (honestly, my own children voiced some concern over my choice of activities on the Lord’s Day). In my defense, we spent the day traveling back from the Baltimore area, hoping to get home by 8PM because our younger boys had to get up early for school the next day. We felt we couldn’t wait until after noon and therefore church was out of the question. Despite the fact that I have not missed church in nearly five years, I do not feel an ounce of guilt for not attending worship last week.
Before anyone says that a Pastor is teaching that we ought not feel guilty for not going to church, let me tell you why I feel no guilt – I consider attendance at church a blessing and not an obligation. Some who are reading this, I am sure, think that going to church is something we have to do (whether we want to or not) to be right with God, sort of like taking cough medicine so that you can eliminate your chest congestion. Instead, I think that going to church is something I need to do, sort of like going to a gas station so that I can fill up on what I need so that I will not get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
It is through corporate gatherings for worship (going to “church”) that we sing familiar and foreign tunes that remind us of our lineage of faith and doctrine. It is through going to “church” that we catch-up with our spiritual siblings through prayer and intercession. It is through going to “church” that we hear the word of God so that we may glorify our great Savior and be encouraged, equipped, challenged and convicted through the shared experience of receiving His grace and mercy. It is through going to “church” that we can interact with people who God places in our lives who could be quite different, in multiple ways, than we are. It is a gift of God that we must not take for granted.
I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.” Psalm 122:1
While I felt no guilt for my absence from church last Sunday, I did miss being there. It is the same feeling I get when I am invited to a party that I cannot attend, knowing that I am not going to be a part of the joyful celebration and the jovial conversation. I missed the comradery, the communion and the compassion of our little flock of followers. I cannot wait to catch up next Sunday.
I say all this not so those who haven’t darkened the doors of a church would feel badly, but rather to share the joys I have in getting together with people of faith as frequently as possible. No one has been barred from heaven solely because of their church attendance record (nor has that ever been the basis for entrance). Our passage to the heavenly places comes from Christ alone. Going to church helps to remind us of what we have to look forward to when we get there.
As we have for the previous four awards seasons, my wife and I watched, in local theaters and in our living room, the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. This year we were enchanted by a western, a musical, a science fiction thriller, a play adaption, a war epic, a biographical film, a coming-of age story, a historical narrative and a tear jerker. Each film introduced us people facing challenges different (sometime much different) than our own. Each movie gave us something to talk about and wrestle with after we viewed it. And while the process of spending twenty or so hours watching movies may not appeal to everyone, it is a treat and a blessing to my wife and me.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to our project of seeing these Best Picture nominees, I am asked the question: what do you think will win? I have some trouble answering that, in part because artistic expression (and that is ultimately what all these movies are) is so subjective, and in part because every film (well, maybe with one exception) had elements of greatness. What do I think will win? The Academy will likely choose Lalaland. What do I think is overall the best picture for 2016, from among those nominated? This is a much more complicated question.
As I answer this question, I feel that I can eliminate half the nominees from my personal best: Arrival was good, especially in its character development and the deep conversation that followed was profound, but not great; Fences, with its exceptional acting performances, was too dialogue driven for my taste; Lalaland was artistically stunning but slow and lacked a plot for about a third of the film; and I found Moonlight, despite its important story, too confusing. I appreciate all these films and the questions they produced in me: what would life be like if we were not constricted by time? How do our dreams and failures shape our lives? Can love conquer all? Can we truly escape our environment?
The other five (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion and Manchester-by-the-Sea) were better stories more beautifully told with exceptional acting. These five, at any given moment, fluctuate in my mind as best. They represent characters who are each faced with challenges (trying to save lives while others are taking them, fighting foreclosure, battling racial injustice, finding a way back home and overcoming an unfair and tragic past), overcoming them, to a greater or lesser degree. There are images and elements of each of these works of art that will remain with me for quite a while – moments of extreme pain and moments of overwhelming joy. At this moment, I offer my opinion and would recommend you seeing Hacksaw Ridge, my choice for Best Picture.
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:36
I do not say this simply because it is the most “faith-based” of the nominees, but because it is the most beautifully shot and compelling story captured on film. All these films, from my personal favorite to my personal worst, have elements which provoke my pastoral side. Each one is worth seeing so that their narratives, whether true or fictitious, can enable us to walk in the shoes of another for 140 minutes or can afford us the opportunity to experience life in a way that we would never experience on our own. We are surrounded by people broken by society and bruised by circumstance, and it is good to be reminded once in a while that we can overcome poverty, tragedy, rejection, oppression, prejudice and even the occasional success. In every story our lives tell, no matter our faith system or lack thereof, God has a marvelous way of breaking in and then shining through the cracks the world inflicts upon us. We all have a story to tell, one worthy of an Academy Award.
On Tuesday morning, my wife and I watched as the Oscar© nominations were announced for the year’s best picture. As we have over the past four years, we are planning on seeing these nine films before the awards ceremony on February 26th. We are entering into this odyssey because we have found that there is a certain kind of magic that is experienced when a wonderful story is wonderfully told. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy these tales, some based on real events and some based on pure fabrication, which transport the movie-goer to a different time or place to witness a life quite foreign to one’s own.
One such experience occurred when we watched Hidden Figures, which relates the story of three real women who worked for NASA in the early 1960s. These women, each in their own way, were brilliant, and each used their God-given gifts to be sure that the United States reached the moon before the Russians. John Glenn would never have survived his initial trip into space without the contributions of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan or Mary Jackson. But each of these women, because they were ‘colored’, were refused access to occupational advancement, advanced education or common decency. Despite their exceptional abilities and passions, they were marginalized simply because of the color of their skin.
Perhaps it is because I was raised in the Northeast or because my earliest memories were from the early 1970s or because I am white, whatever the reason, the concept of separate bathrooms, entrances and water fountains integral to this film is completely foreign to me. It was saddening and eye-opening to be reminded again that an entire segment of our great society lived, and perhaps still lives, with blatant prejudice and disregard for universal humanity as a way of life. This reflection of our shared past serves as a stark contrast to the truth of God recorded in the Bible.
And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10
The kingdom of God includes men and women from every culture, race and ethnicity. Our choice of words or our color of eyes have no bearing on our identity; we are all the same in all the ways that matter. We are all worthy of respect, entitled to opportunity and capable of all sorts of greatness. And because of the nature of God’s kingdom (and our desire to see His kingdom come) we ought to be the first to champion a person’s spirit over their skin color (or gender or possessions or education or health or status). We are all the same.
Going to the movies the other night reminded me that we, who have been purchased and ransomed by the blood of the lamb, are called to treat one another as fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. We ought to be the first to confront discrimination and advocate impartiality. We, as ambassadors of Christ, ought to be an encouragement to and an embracer of those around us. Then, we can all touch the heavens.
As part of a roundtable discussion group, I met with a dozen or so other ministry leaders on Wednesday to discuss a recent New York Times best-seller: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is a wonderful memoir of Vance’s upbringing in a dysfunctional extended family in Appalachia. At first, without going into the details, let me tell you that I resonated with the narrative Vance weaved around households riddled with abuse, addiction and hopelessness. It brought me back in time to my childhood and I immediately thought that I alone saw parallels between the author’s life and my own. It turns out that a degree of dysfunction is universal.
Few homes house perfect families. Parents argue – some quite loudly – and even use foul language. Drug and alcohol addiction cannot be restricted to particular regions of the United States. Serial divorce and remarriage is not limited to one social stratum. Nearly every family tree contains a branch (or several branches) that were established through unwed or teenage mothers. There are few families who have not been effected by mental illness, whether it is an immediate family member battling depression or a suicidal extended relation. To some degree, we all carry similar baggage, given to us in childhood and carried into adulthood.
In reading and reacting to this book, I realized that the homes in my neighborhood – as well as the pew in the churches in our community – are filled with people with baggage from their upbringing. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know”; because almost no one shares all the challenges they are attempting to overcome, we rarely know the whole story. This requires us to treat one another with compassion, what the Greek bible writers call “splanchnizomai”. Those who have a medical education might be aware that the root ‘splanchno-’ relates to the visceral organs (the guts). So we, as human beings and as God’s people, ought to get a knot in our stomachs, an intestinal distress, as we interact with those navigating rough waters in a leaky rowboat.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31–32 (NIV)
Before we dismiss those who buy bottles of soda with food stamps as unfit, perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that milk and juice are often options too expensive for their budget and perhaps then offer to pick up a gallon of milk for them. Before we roll our eyes at the hopeless and jobless as we utter the words, “Get a job,” perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that education is not the same as intelligence and access to opportunity is not equally available to all classes and cultures and perhaps offer to share some social capital with those without any of their own. There are already enough people in the world willing to judge others; we could empathize instead and bring help and hope to those who need it.
We have the privilege of sharing – with those who feel unloved, those who title themselves worthless and those who have heard that they would never amount to anything – the fact that they are loved, they have worth and they can accomplish great things. We have the privilege to bring grace – unmerited favor – to those who know little more than heartache. We can share our struggles and listen to theirs, knowing that God cares for us and will comfort us in our times of need. We are all broken, at least a little. But praise God: He makes us whole.
When you spend more than twelve hours on the road, driving from Maryland to Massachusetts, you have a great deal of time to think. Because of the weather conditions last Saturday, our 382 miles trip took much longer than I anticipated. It was a challenging and stressful drive over snowy and slushy highways. The satellite radio and the DVDs from Redbox© made the travelling a bit more bearable while I focused on the road ahead. Throughout the journey, my thoughts turned to lessons about life and living, some superficial and some profound.
The first lesson I learned was that I ought not trust forecasts. We live in a society saturated in information, including phone apps that will show you live weather radar and predictions for storm patterns. As we were anticipating our trip home from Jeanine’s brother’s funeral, I watched and listened to meteorologists in Baltimore (via television) and Boston (via phone app) predicting that the storm was expected to move beneath us and travel out to sea before blowing into Massachusetts via the Cape. New Jersey, Westchester County and Western Connecticut were supposed to be spared more than a dusting. No such luck was to fall upon us. The computers were wrong and the storm took a more western course, forcing us to face light but accumulating snow every minute of our trip. Experts are not always correct.
I also learned that there are times, rare but right, that staying with others while disregarding the letter of the law is the proper course of action. Most of the highways we traveled (The New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Interstates 87, 287, 84 and 90) were three lanes in either direction. In the worst of conditions, these throughways became two sets of ruts travelling along the divided white lines. At times there was a series of 15 or so cars, all moving at 45 mph, all illegally crossing over their lanes and maintaining the safety of the roads. Obedience to the law is not always best.
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 14:12
The biggest lesson I learned was that I could stand to be more humble. Early on in the process, I made the decision to return to work on Sunday. We made our plans based on my choice to be home Saturday night. Throughout our time away I saw weather reports and I remained resolute. I received texts from people in the church advising me to reconsider and I remained resolute. My wife wanted me to change our plans and I remained resolute. I unnecessarily risked everything to show that I was right, but I was wrong. I feel that needs to be stated again: I was wrong. I was proud. I have since apologized to my wife and children for my arrogance. I am not always right.
Thank God that we, despite my own foolishness, arrived safely at home. In hindsight, I should have listened to those around me, led by the Spirt, instead of listening only to myself. There was a way that appeared to me to be right, and it certainly could have led to disaster. I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to learn these lessons and not harmed by the consequences of my unwise haughtiness. Let’s hope that you and I can all learn from my stupidity.
This morning we will be attending the funeral of my brother-in-law, Stephen V. Silva. Last Friday, in the early morning hours, Steve lost his battle with cancer at the age of fifty-four. He was a wonderful son, brother, husband, father, uncle and grandfather. He was a good man and he will be missed – he was warm and loving, considerate and caring toward those around him. Today is a day of great sorrow for all those who knew Stephen. There is a small bit of solace in knowing that his physical suffering, ever increasing for the last thirty-seven months, has ceased.
A few months ago, I wrote that the three toughest words I am forced to utter are “I don’t know.” Occasionally, I feel the need to defend God – when tragedy strikes or suffering comes to call – from the charge that He is unloving or uncaring or unfair. Honestly, especially on a day like today, I am immensely inadequate to the task. I cannot explain to my mother-in-law why she is called upon to bury a second child. I cannot give reason which makes sense of this loss to my sister-in-law or my wife. I am at a loss to rationalize why some cancers enter remission and others do not. I simply do not have all (or even most of) the answers.
I do know that God comforts those who mourn. There is not a single tear that falls from a single cheek that He is not mindful of. While I cannot explain the problem of pain, I am certain of God’s promise to be near those who are sorrowful.
I do know that God promises an end to suffering. There will come a day when all things will be made right and sin, death and disease will vanish. While I cannot tell you when the pain will cease, I do know that God promises it will.
I do know that God has conquered death through His son. All those who trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior will never truly die and we will see them again in glory. I cannot state with certainty when death will be ultimately vanquished, I know it will happen.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4
Today, Stephen’s family, co-workers, neighbors and friends will share in their collective grief. Tomorrow, many tears will be shed. For many days ahead, the pain of loss will be palpable. I trust that God will be with those mourn and, eventually, there will be a sense of ‘new’ normalcy. Until that day comes, I ask for your prayers for my wife’s family. I ask that you’d remember Bohuska, Stephen’s wife of over 30 years; Michael, Anthony, Stephanie, and Jonathan, his children; Lilly, Gionni, and Sage, his grandchildren; Pauline, his mother; and Natalie and Jeanine, his sisters.
For reasons I do not quite understand (something about licensing and ownership), our local NBC affiliation is changing channels – from channel 7 to channel 10 – on January 1st. For a few weeks I will, by instinct, tune into the wrong station and then remember that things have changed. It is a reminder that things are constantly changing. Life is continually in a state of flux, shifting like waves in the ocean. I have seen this in my own circumstances in 2016: our oldest son graduating from college and moving back home, our daughter graduating from High School and attending college in Washington, DC, spending 3 weeks at home over the past four months, our whole family moving from one apartment to another.
Some changes are simple (like television stations or finding new locations for Christmas trees), while others are more challenging (dealing with new medication regimens and moving everything you own), but every change impacts life. Some changes we make are restorative (such as eating healthier or improving our sleeping patterns) and others are destructive (such as picking up bad habits or ending a relationship). As this year ends and another begins, many will be thinking about making changes, or resolutions, as a means of improving their everyday lives. Seek to make the changes that are restorative.
My concern for myself, as well as those I love and serve beside, are not the changes I initiate, but the changes that come through uninvited means. About a year ago, I made some resolutions, preferring to call them intentions, about trusting God more and praying more. I had no idea that 366 days later I’d be in a different home with slightly different decor or that I’d be dealing with hypertension for my remaining days on earth. I had little idea what it would feel like having a child living so far away or worrying about colonoscopies. My concern is that I have no idea what lies ahead in 2017.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17 (NIV)
My hope, for the years that have passed and the year to come, is that God alone never changes. Everything good in my life (and yours) comes from the immutable Father in heaven. There is nothing that surprises or flusters the Lord of all creation. While my circumstances (as well as my weight, my address and my blood pressure) may change, the one who knows my needs and desires will never change. He will, as I follow Him and His word, continue to shower good and perfect gifts upon me, whether I understand them as gifts or not. My hope is in God, no matter how my life may change.
Allow me to wish you all a very happy new year. Whether you are a person who makes resolutions or not, I pray that all who are reading this will find the changes that the coming year brings redemptive and restorative. And I pray that the God who never changes will grant you every good and perfect gift He has purposed for your enjoyment.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8 (NIV)
Of all the people involved in the Christmas narrative, I find myself identifying most with the shepherds. While I am not a rugged outdoorsman with an extensive knowledge of ovine behavior, there are a few touchpoints with their lives that intrigue me. These men, and perhaps women, were hard working – braving the weather of ancient Palestine, warding off the dangers that surrounded them, satisfying the needs of those placed in their care – and strong willed. They were likely underappreciated by those around them (performing a necessary task but smelling like the livestock) and underestimated in their hometowns (battling the assumptions that they were simple-minded and poorly groomed). They were the “little people” that most of us pass by unnoticed.
But that all changed when God interrupted their lives. According to Luke, these shepherds were living out in the fields with their sheep, taking care of business, when suddenly a messenger of God appeared in the nighttime sky. Many others, before and since, have a similar experience; they were living their lives, doing their best, when suddenly, God breaks through the “business as usual” with His spectacular presence. Praise God that the shepherds realized what was happening and responded with reverence. They listened and believed. Interestingly, at least on this occasion, God didn’t interrupt the prayers of the temple or the plans of the king; He announced the miraculous to the common man.
What happened to that common man, what happened to those shepherds, is equally astounding. Those who lived out in the fields and smelled like the sheep they tended became the spokespeople for God. After seeing the child, just the way he was promised, they began telling those around them the good news – that the Savior has been born and the promised one has arrived. The Bible says that the people who heard the shepherds’ story were amazed, perhaps by the message and perhaps by the messengers. God broke through into the lives of ordinary people and allowed them to do something extraordinary.
The wonderful truth connected with the shepherds at Christmas is that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The one who shattered the darkness near Bethlehem with His brilliant glory is still doing the same thing today. He is still sending messengers to ordinary people, announcing the arrival of Christ the Lord. I know this because He broke into my life with His glorious light, albeit not with literal brilliance. I was happily seeking out an ordinary life after being raised in an ordinary household. In one moment, I changed from an unremarkable banker to a reflection of Him. It wasn’t when I first trusted Him or when I was baptized, but rather when I saw and heard the truth and know I couldn’t keep it to myself.
My story led me to become a youth leader and a pastor, but I could have, like those shepherds of long ago, returned to my field with praise and glory to God. No matter where life finds us, we are all surrounded by God’s glory; we simply need to recognize it. Especially at Christmas, embrace the enchantment of the Nativity. Let those songs in the background become a beacon for Him. Allow those lights on the tree serve as a taste of the light of the Lord. And when God breaks through, listen.